KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Consumers are more cautious when using potentially hazardous products if the warning label specifically names the disease, injury, or health risk the product may cause, a University of Tennessee study shows.
Dr. Bethany Dumas, a UT-Knoxville English professor who studies language and law, said people are more likely to ignore warning labels that mention risk but omit specifics about what the risks are.
For example, people working with paint that emits potentially harmful fumes are more likely to take precautions, such as assuring proper ventilation, if the product label says it causes nosebleeds or cancer, instead of just stating that it is a health hazard, she said.
Dumas asked about 150 people about characteristics of warning labels they considered most effective. Most said they would pay more attention to the label and use more caution if it listed specific diseases or other hazardous effects.
Dumas also found:
– Simple, straightforward language was more effective than scientific, technical terms.
– Words such as “may,” “can,” “might” or “could,” as in “This product may cause headaches,” weakened the warning label impact.
– Skull and crossbones with the word “poison” are the most effective warning label images.
“When assessing warning labels, people engage in a very complex type of rationalization behavior, especially if it is a something they want to use or are addicted to,” Dumas said. “Even if there is some danger, they are subconsciously looking for some language to tell them it is O.K., to get them off the hook.”
Dumas has compiled a survey of other studies on warning labels, which she plans to publish as “The Structure and Function of Written Warnings: An Annotated Bibliography and Overview Essay.”
The bibliography cites studies from law, linguistics, psychology and other fields. It can help companies and legislators make decisions about labels, or judges in product liability lawsuits, she said.
“Courts and corporations wrestle to define adequacy for warnings on products ranging from cigarettes to hot cups of coffee,” Dumas said, “but they often do not understand the nature and function of warnings, and they fail to refer to the interdisciplinary research which informs this field.”
Dumas has testified as an expert witness in court cases about warnings on cigarettes, glue, all-terrain vehicles, and other products. She edits the electronic journal “Language in the Judicial Process,” and articles on her research have appeared in “Tennessee Law Review.”
Contact: Dr. Bethany Dumas (423-974-6965)